From Emperors to Kings

When the Romans finally conquered, built and pounded the streets of Great Britain in their Calcei boots between 43 to 410 AD, this mighty and highly organised military empire held a strong belief in the importance of education, albeit, only for the elite ruling classes of the time.

Elementary education consisted of the ‘Three R’s’ much as today, ie; Reading, ‘W’riting and ‘A’rithmetic. The next stage of their educational system was the Grammar which consisted of composition and study of literature. Finally, there was Rhetoric, the theory and practice of oratory which was taught to the privileged few.

The Roman education system, although based on earlier Greek methods, provided a blueprint for educational systems throughout later Western civilizations as it recognised that education should start as early as possible and progression through tiers of education depended on the ability of the student. Today, the emphasis is more on progression according to age groups, but similarities remain in the general concept of those early Hellenic and Roman influences.

When Roman rule disintegrated in Britain in the early 5th Century and the soldiers fled these cold, rain-soaked shores, Great Britain did not encounter formal education again until a Christian Berber from Roman Africa (now Algeria), arrived in Canterbury, Kent in the 6th Century and, expressing his passion to pass on knowledge, went on to found the very first school in the British Isles, Kings School in Canterbury in the Cathedral grounds. Initially, he established Grammar schools for teaching Latin to priests and Song Schools for training boys to sing in Cathedral choirs, but male domination of the school and education in general, continued for another 1400 years. This was the beginning of the formal practice of education for classes of male children in Britain, although girls of wealthy parents in the 640s were often sent to French convents where they would be given a Christian education to prepare them to join religious orders.

Meanwhile, in Augustine’s schools the trivium (three basic subjects) of grammar, rhetoric and logic were taught alongside the quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy to prepare students in the study of theology, law and medicine. Once again, the Hellenic and Roman influences prevailed throughout this early system of education, but this time against a conspicuous backdrop of Christianity.

St Augustine taught that the ultimate purpose of education is the turning towards God. He was a deep thinker who was devoutly religious and his beliefs profoundly affected the course of education. Since his influence and philosophies on life permeated the new Christian churches of the time, religion continued to be inextricably linked with educational establishments for centuries to come. Education, like Art and Music, was heavily influenced by religion right up until the 19th Century when charity schools and free grammar schools opened to children of any religious beliefs.

Today, King’s School is a mixed, independent school with a long, proud history and the honour of being known as the oldest school in the world, all thanks to a young Algerian with a rebellious spirit and philosophical mind, who introduced formal education to Britain by starting his first school in the same county where Julius Caesar, another Roman foreigner, had earlier jumped ashore in 55BC in an unsuccessful attempt to conquer Britain. St Augustine’s life experiences led him on a path from hedonism to piety and venerated sainthood. Not a man to be easily forgotten, he now rests in Pavia, in Italy.

In my next blog, we will focus on education in the 14th Century and the birth of Winchester College.